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Extravagance, imprisonment and Revenge

The career of Britain's first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, is strangely reminiscent of the lucrative and unprincipled career events of certain late 20th century and early 21st century British and American politicians. This may shock those with too much respect for Walpole, one of Britain's longest serving prime ministers, but it may be useful to draw the comparisons on the eve of a General Election.

We’ll describe Walpole's 18th century career and let you make the connections with political headliners today. Then follow us to the conclusion to discover Walpole's completely unexpected effect on 19th century Prime Ministers.

All quotes come from the Oxford DNB, which provides a thorough and even-handed biography, though some facts – the real father of his son, Horace, and how Robert Walpole suddenly acquired a vast fortune – remain obscure.

An unexpected change of fortune

Robert Walpole was born in 1676 in the old manor house at Houghton, Norfolk, the fifth of seventeen children. His father built up his library and manor lands. He was well-off, but not rich, and he sat in Parliament as a Whig. He expected his younger son, Robert, to enter the Church of England. (It can hardly be surprising that the Church's mission barely survived its use as an employment agency for younger sons.)

Like many Prime Ministers, Robert went to Eton then Cambridge. When two older brothers died – one at the battle of Beachy Head - he left university and returned home to learn how to manage the estate he was now to inherit.

A colourful marital life

Short and stout, Walpole arranged to marry a woman of 'exquisite beauty' with a large dowry. He entered Parliament in 1701 - one of many rich and connected men who did. He and his wife Catherine cut a political and social swathe through London, spending extravagantly, accumulating debts and mortgaging land.

After 1706 and the birth of their fourth child, the Walpoles’ marriage broke down, but 'they continued to live together and publicly appearances were maintained. Catherine continued to play the role of the wife of a leading politician'. In private they lived separate lives, and their affairs became 'the talk of the town'. Horatio (Horace) Walpole of Strawberry Hill, was born in 1717, and may not have been Robert’s son; in the decade that followed, Robert fathered several daughters with several different mistresses. (He married one of his mistresses after his wife’s death.)

It seems unlikely that most modern political careers could survive personal arrangements of this kind. Walpole, however, was indispensable to his party, and he was never a hypocrite in so far as sexual matters were concerned. The 18th public has a well-deserved reputation for bawdiness which the 21st century is beginning to equal. Like many people today they hated a hypocrite, and more or less accepted sexual frankness. It's the cover-up, not the affair, that destroys a politician. That being said, the public is not keen to support raunchy politicians.

Kit-Kat Club member and villain

Like his father, Walpole had become a Whig. One of the two original political parties in England, the other being the Tories, the Whigs supported constitutional monarchism and opposed absolute rule. As today, both parties took on new policies and abandoned others. Sometimes they abandoned principle as well.

?'From the moment Walpole entered the Commons, he began to play an active role in its proceedings.’ He forged close relationships at the Kit-Kat Club, whose ‘old Cats and young Kits’ had supported the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89, or so it was believed. The club may have been named after the mutton pies eaten at the Trumpet tavern where they met. Over the years members gained a reputation for toasting beautiful women and for being wits. Through revolution, pies and toasts, and a change of quarters, they remained ardent Whigs.

From the first, Walpole appeared to be both a supporter of principle and a sell-out. In 1702, desperate for cash, he secured his Tory uncle a seat in Parliament in return for his financial help. This was the beginning of a career that rocketed from principle to pragmatism and back again.

The combination of principle and opportunism today makes it difficult to tell what a politician is really about, doesn’t it? Is he sacrificing smaller principles to keep larger ones alive? Is his devotion to principle a complete and utter sham? Is an ideologue worse than an opportunistic politician because ideology blinds its possessor to common sense and he will sacrifice an entire people to achieve his goals, or keep stumbling down the wrong track because he has made an ideology his religion? What about those self-proclaimed 'reformers' who hand out government checks (your money) to 'green" profiteers, dependent voters and fat cat bankers? And what about modern power couples who live beyond their means? What deals do they cut to keep their bank accounts topped up?

Tit for tat

Walpole made a name for himself as a speaker in Parliament and a strategic player. Appointed to the board of the Admiralty he proved energetic and efficient, but was so exasperated by the proceedings, he considered resigning. Shortly afterward he was made secretary at war by the Tories. As a result, he was denounced at the Kit-Cat Club as ‘a villain’ who had betrayed Whigs.

?Around this time, a Tory preacher’s remarks about the Glorious Revolution infuriated the revolution’s supporters, many of them Whigs. The preacher had asserted nonresistance was the best policy. Walpole impeached him, and justified the right of political resistance during the Revolution in a major speech in the House.

The idea of political resistance resonated then and hopefully still does today, but the Whig triumph was short-lived, as it deserved to be, since in defending political resistance they had attacked free speech.

The Tories responded by subverting the argument. They cried that ‘the Church was in danger’, and mobs pelted Whigs, including Walpole, with stones and dirt.

The ability of a political party to say one thing and think and do another is quite stunning, isn't it? Take American Democrats, who claimed 'dissent is the highest form of patriotism' throughout the first decade of this century. Then, mirabile dictu, they win control of the House, Senate and White House and suddenly dissent becomes racist treason.

Or take the current Tory leader, who once promised that a referendum on the European Union's Lisbon Treaty was the right of the British people, and made a 'cast-iron promise' to hold one. As the General Election approached, he reneged on his promise without a blush. Did he ever believe in a referendum? Aside from winning the election, what firm beliefs does he possess?

Politicians mislead the people. It's a perennial theme.

Into the Tower

In 1712 Walpole was deemed so powerful that the Tories attacked him with corruption charges. They sent him to the Tower. Alas for the Tories, their move backfired.

The corruption charge against Walpole was politically motivated but it was probably true. In this it resembled the charges recently made against MPs of all three main political parties. You recall that MPs exploited the public purse by claiming and receiving reimbursements for expenses and mortgages which they should have paid themselves. The difference is that most of the moderns have escaped scot-free.

Found guilty of 'a high breach of trust and notorious corruption', expelled from the House and committed to the Tower, Walpole’s defiant reply was 'I heartily despise what I shall one day revenge'.

It's a line we hope will resonate with constituents in Britain and tea party voters in America when they take their revenge by voting out of office their corrupt and high-spending representatives.

The move backfired because 'imprisonment turned Walpole into a national political figure and a Whig martyr. He was visited daily by the leading Whigs, a ballad composed in his honour described him as the Jewel in the Tower, and at the King's Lynn by-election he was triumphantly returned, defeating a local Tory'.

Never underestimate the public's sense of fair play and their empathy with those in trouble. If Walpole's plump hands had been slapped, his constituents might have remained wroth. In the face of massive retribution, they rallied behind him.

However, the public at large did not make the Tories pay in the next election because the Tories appeared to be bringing the nation peace. The people thought the peace of an entire nation more important than the corruption and 'martyrdom' of one politician.

The power of events

In 1714, the accession of George I, Queen Anne’s closest living Protestant relative, totally upended the government. The Tories were out. The Whigs were in. The prize was the government's power to absorb money from all Brits and funnel it to its favourites. Though limited, this power was immense, and immensely destructive.


The DNB reports that at first Walpole 'was only appointed paymaster of the forces' in the new administration. Walpole's dominance of Parliament was affirmed a year later when he was appointed first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. Revenge being a meal best enjoyed cold, Walpole proceeded to prepare two meals.

To be continued.

Thanks to Instapundit for the link to money.

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